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Indian Culture in the Writings of Arab Scholars in the Twentieth Century

Dr. Mohammad Salim

(PDF, ICSSR, New Delhi) 

India had a very deep impact on ancient Arab heritage owing to its profound philosophy, and precise mathematical sciences. And therefore, the image that the Arabs had of India was one of respect and admiration. This was due to the philosophy, sciences, and literature that the Indians possessed, as well as because of their intelligence, ingenuity, and wisdom. They also played a significant role in advancing civilization, which led to social convergence and cultural exchange between Indian and Arab cultures. Hence, Indian culture found its way into Arabic writings long back. As trade relations, political ties, and the bonds of Islamic brotherhood between Arabs and Indian Muslims continued to flourish, scholars and writers proficient in the Arabic language took an interest in studying Indian society, its ancient civilization, and its Islamic culture. This led to an increase in studies and writings in the Arabic language that focused on Indian society and culture since medieval times, especially through the translation of Indian books into Arabic or by describing them in Arabic writings related to the history of sciences.

Keywords: Arab scholars, Indian Culture, Indian philosophy, Arabic writings

Most of the Arabic writings that explore Indian culture and describe it are travelogues. However, apart from the travelogues, there are some other Arabic writings that dealt with Indian culture and talked about Indian societies, even though their authors did not visit India. Instead, they relied on references, travelers’ accounts, or other merchants who had visited India during their time and recorded their observations about India. Among these authors was Abu Al-Qasim Ubaidullah Ibn Khurdabadh (820-912 CE), who did not visit India but documented information about it in his book “Kitab Al-Masalik Wal-Mamalik” and benefited from the travelers and merchants who visited India in his era. Likewise, Ahmad ibn Rustah, the famous geographer, provided some information about India in his book “Al-Aghlāq Al-Nafīsah,” and Shamsuddin al-Ansari al-Damashqi (1256-1327 CE) in his book “Nukhbat al-Dahr fi ‘Ajā’ib al-Barr wa al-Baḥr,” and the historian-geographer Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Idrisi (1099-1165 or 1166 CE) in his book “Nuzhat al-Mushtāq fi Ikhtirāq al-Āfāq,” as well as Abu Yahya Zakariya ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini (1203-1283 CE) in his book “Āthār al-Bilād wa Akhbār al-‘Ibād,” and Abu al-Fadl Isma’il al-Hamawi (1331 CE) in his history book “Taqwīm al-Buldan,” and the historian Yaqut ibn Abdullah al-Hamawi (1179-1229 CE) in “Mu’jam al-Buldān,” and Shihabuddin Ahmad ibn Abdul Wahhab al-Nuwayri (1278-1333 CE) in “Nihayat al-Irb fi Funun al-Adab,” and Shihabuddin Ahmad ibn Yahya al-‘Umari (1301-1348 CE) in “Masālik al-Absār fi Mamālik al-Amsār,” and other books from the medieval era that contain valuable information about India and shed bright light on the social, political, cultural life, and Indian society as a whole.

In addition to these books that are considered as foundation of historical literature in the Arabic language, several contemporary Arab writers have followed them. These writers visited India during the 19th and 20th centuries, observed Indian society, became acquainted with it, and learned about the prevailing culture in its various regions. Among these writers and scholars were Rasheed Raza Masri, who documented his impressions in his magazine “Al-Manar,” Abdul Mun’im al-Nimr in his book “The History of Islam in India,”, Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad in his books “The Great Soul Mahatma Gandhi” and “The Supreme Leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah,” Sayyid Qutb in his book “Literary Criticism,” Omar Abu Risha in his poetry collection, Ahmed Amin in “Dhuha al-Islam,” and Georgy Zaidan in his book “The History of Islamic Civilization and many others.

These writers and scholars addressed India and its social, cultural, and political conditions. They provided insights into Indian society, culture, prevailing customs, religions, and traditions. In addition to these writers, we have found several contemporary Arab authors who wrote about Indian society and culture and presented research papers in conferences and seminars. Furthermore, researchers have written academic articles about India, its history, and culture in Arab and African universities, particularly in universities in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

In these writings, studies, and research, we find ample material for conducting academic research and studying the mentioned social and cultural values, analyzing them in a descriptive and scientific manner. In the below pages, I would attempt to discuss such authors and their writings where Indian culture and society has been highlighted and discussed.

Wadi’ al-Bustani (1886-1954):

He is regarded as one of the prominent Arab writers of the modern era. He undertook the translation of the great Indian epic, “The Mahabharata”, into Arabic language. He translated 3,472 verses out of the original 9,000 verses and it was published by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in Delhi in 1952. He also engaged in the poetic translation of the Bhagavad Gita, although it has not been printed yet. Wadi’ Al-Bustani translated 741 lines from the poem “Shakuntala” by the Indian poet Kalidasa. The Osmania Encyclopedia Department in Hyderabad published a complete translation of the book “Bhagavad Gita” in 1951, which was carried out by Dr. Mahan Lal Rai[1].

Abbas Mahmoud Aqqad (1889-1964):

Abbas Mahmoud Aqqad is considered one of the great Arab writers. He studied Indian history and wrote about it. He was greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and authored a separate book to describe his personality and philosophy. He named his book “A Great Soul – Mahatma Gandhi,” where he expressed his deep admiration for Gandhi’s character, philosophy, the secrets of his life, and his politics. He began his book with beautiful verses of poetry, saying:

The ascetic from India the world mourned him and fasted,

I eulogize him, but I do not fast[2]

Aqqad described Gandhi’s personality by saying, ‘It is most fitting to equate the greatness of Gandhi with other great figures of  humankind, for he surpasses them all. He is criticized by a thousand great minds from the old and moderns, some fearing him greatly, while others contradicting him in every attribute. Yet, he remains great, and they too are great. True greatness in humanity encompasses them all. These pages lead to this goal and do not lead to any other. They are not a record of events or a chronicle of days, but rather a small mirror reflecting the facets of greatness in Mahatma Gandhi… He is a great soul[3]. Consequently, Aqqad also explored other cultural figures, such as Rabindranath Tagore, and he tried to explore India through the poetry of Tagore and the philosophy of Gandhi. In his view, Gandhi was the ‘Prophet of India,’ and Tagore was the poet of India[4].

Aqqad mentiones that Tagore stated in one of his lectures to Americans about nationalism in the world: “When our problems in India were internal, our history became a history of continuous moral rectification. It was not a history of organized power for defense or aggression. There was neither the mysterious globalism with no color, neither the rampant paganism that is visible in a nation’s worship of itself to become the ultimate goal that human history strives for[5].

Through reading this book, we find that Aqqad describes Gandhi as the saint of the twentieth century, as he managed to unite India on one platform, despite its diverse cultures and the differences among its people, in a way that made it seem closer to being different countries than one nation. Aqqad also shaped the ideas of India and its culture by linking the struggle for freedom through “non-violence” or “self-discipline”, and resistance to violence with kindness.

Aqqad recounts some historical events to illustrate Gandhi’s genius and the nobility of his character, making him a symbol of peace and non-violence, and a spiritual father of a free India. By researching the philosophy of “non-violence” adhered by Gandhi, Aqqad elaborates his words with precision and sees Gandhi’s approach as effective, where forgiveness and non-violence do not allow the oppressor to continue their injustice, but rather, resistance continues even in its non-violence way. Aqqad praised Gandhi’s philosophy of tolerance and his greatness in this regard, saying: “At the time when Gandhi was advocating peace and avoiding violent resistance, Europe was shaken by an opposite call that contradicted it completely, which was the call for power and cruelty, or what his followers and promoters called the religion of power[6].

Ahmad Shauqi (1868-1932):

He is one of the great Arab poets and is considered one of the greatest poets of the modern era in the Arabic language. He was also known as the Prince of Poets and the Poet of the Nile. In addition to his poetry, Shauqi also wrote some novels. Shauqi reflects the image of India in his poetry and novels as well. He composed a poem about the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi[7], expressing admiration for the hero of India, Mahatma Gandhi. The poet welcomed Gandhi with this poem when he passed through Egypt on his way to England to participate in the Round Table Conference, titled “A Tribute from Egypt to the Great Hero of India”[8].

In this magnificent poem, the poet expresses his appreciation for Gandhi’s stature and his remarkable role in defending the truth for humanity, even to the point of referring to him as a prophet and a messenger. He says:

A prophet like Confucius safeguarded that covenant,

Near in speech and action to the awaited Mehdi,

Similar to messengers in defending the truth,

And in asceticism, he is akin.

He has taught with truth,

And with patience and determination [9].

He extolled the beauty of his philosophy in fraternity and friendship, tolerance, and peaceful resistance, saying:

“He called upon Hindus and Muslims,

Towards unity and friendship by the magic of the soul’s power

He held both swords in one sheath,

And had mastery over the self strengthening the lion’s stride [10].

Ahmad Ameen (1886-1954):

He is an Egyptian writer, thinker, historian, and author known for his independent intellectual approach rooted in moderation. He is renowned for his encyclopedia series titled “Fajrul Islam,” “Dhuhal Islam,” and “Zuhurul Islam.” In his work “Dhuhal Islam,” he delved into Indian culture in detail. He discussed the Arab relationship with the Indians, the Arabs’ fascination with Indian wood and swords, the Arabs’ conquest of India, and the subsequent influence of Indian Muslims. He also talked about Indian scholars, scientists, poets, and writers, and the impact of Indians on Islamic culture from two perspectives, as he says:

“Indians had an influence on Islamic culture in two ways:

  • Directly, through the connection of Muslims with India via trade and Arab conquests. These conquests incorporated parts of the Indian subcontinent into the Islamic kingdom, subjecting them to its system. Muslims migrated to these regions, and Indians moved to various parts of the Islamic world. Both carried their cultures with them and exchanged them through trade.
  • Indirectly, Indian culture was transmitted through the Persians. The Persians had close ties with the Indians long before the Islamic conquests and were influenced by them. They absorbed much of Indian culture and integrated it into their own. When Persian culture was transferred to Arabic, it also carried a part of Indian culture within it. This meant that Indian culture became a part of Arab culture indirectly[11].

He explored the extent of Indian influence on theology, religious and sports articles, mathematics and astronomy, literature, and subsequent arts[12]. He mentioned various Indian customs, traditions, teachings, philosophies, and stories, and then stated: “All these religious philosophies, sports teachings, literary stories, and social customs melted into the Islamic realm and became an essential element of Arabic literature[13].

Ali Zayour:

The writer Ali Zayour dealt with the cultural diversity in India through his book “Indian Philosophies: Hindu, Islamic, and Reformist Sects[14]. Zayour sheds bright light on these culturally-oriented philosophies. He regards Buddhism, for example, as a way of life rooted in purification, love, tolerance, and compassion. It is considered a living creed rather than a religion or philosophy in the conventional sense. It has a unique approach to worship, emphasizing the avoidance of rituals and movements that distract from the essence[15]. Buddhism serves as a model for Indian culture with its social and cultural values, centered on purification, love, tolerance, and compassion[16]. Zayour spoke of the influence of “The Bhakti Movement” on society, and its contribution to spreading love, harmony, non-violence, and humanity.

Ahmed Shilbi:

The author Ahmed Shilbi explored Indian cultures, particularly the major Indian religious values, in his book “The Great Indian Religions”. He delved into Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism[17], highlighting Buddhism’s call for tolerance and the rejection of fanaticism. He argued that fanaticism is the enemy of religion and therefore called on his friends to love all beings. Buddha advocated for goodness, peace, and responding to wrongdoing with kindness and love rather than retaliation.

Umar Abu Risha (1910-1990 CE):

He was a famous Syrian poet and diplomat and he is considered one of the most important poets in the modern era in the Arab world. He had several poetry collections and poetic anthologies, including “Beitun wa Beitain,” “Nisaun” (Women), “Kajourao“, “Ghanaitu fi Mamati” (Singing in My Days), “Amruka Ya Rabb” (Your order, O Lord), “Wadaa’” (Farewell), “Fi Mawsim al-Ward” (In the Season of Roses), “Luw’ah” (Melancholy), “Tallalun” (Chants), “Sirru Al-Sarab” (The Secret of Mirage), “Ghada Min Al-Undulus” (A beauty Queen from Spane), “Malhamatun Nabi” (The Epic of the Prophet), “Ummati” (My Nation), “Ya Sha’bu” (O People), “Al-Ashqiyau” (The Unfortunates), and “Ha-ka-za Taq-tahimu Al-Qudus” (This Is How Jerusalem Is Conquered). In addition to his poetry, he wrote some plays, including “Ali“, “Al-Hussein” and “Taj Mahal“.

He composed a few stanzas of the poem about India, which he recited at an event hosted by the President of India for King Saud in 1955 when Umar Abu Risha was the Syrian ambassador in New Delhi. He spontaneously recited these stanzas:

“When the horizons of my pride and my esteem

Were touched by the fragrance of Damascus

You were adorned with the scent of Damascus

And I found in you the face of Arabness

Leave glory, O Saud, for it flows

Wherever its paths are trod with fragrance

And behold India, the land of goodness

How it blossomed with the joy of your love[18]

The poet Umar Abu Risha served as an ambassador for Syria in India, where he mingled with the Indian people and made friends with both the young and the old. He had interactions with Indian leaders such as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi and regularly met Nehru. He composed a magnificent poem about the “Khajuraho Temple in India,” one of the most important Hindu temples in India. Originally, it was a museum of statues and paintings representing the worship practices of Hindus. It is considered one of the most significant and creative works that Indian artists have produced. Because of this outstanding poem, a hall in this temple was named after him, known as the “Hall of the Poet Umar Abu Risha”.

Umar Abu Risha was deeply influenced by Indian culture, believing in the immortality of the soul and embracing the doctrine of unity. He expressed these ideas in the following verses:

They ask about me, tell them I have kept watch over them,

That they have seen my steadfast form

Do not worry. Do not mourn in humility,

Do not allow sorrow to be born.

Tell them to journey, tell them:

It has an appointed time on this planet [19]

Umar’s cultural affinity with India is evident in his fascination with the Indian temple “Khajuraho” through his poem which he is likely to have composed around 1957. It reflects the “Puranic” philosophy, which regulates emotional inclinations with reason, rejects the tyranny of individual ego, and avoids immersion in imagination. He aspires to elevate art to absolute beauty. In addition to the poem “Khajuraho,” he composed a poem about the “Taj Mahal” following his visit to it, titling it “Love of the Earth“. He described the Taj as a prominent cultural and civilizational symbol in India’s history with precision and insight.

Muhammad Saeed Al-Tarihi (Born 1954):

The book “Salutation to India[20] by Muhammad Saeed Al-Tarihi was published with an introduction by the poet Umar Abu Risha as a part of the Kufa Academic Books series, by the Mosam Library. In this book, Tarihi collected and compiled some of his poems. It is a book that brings together Arabic poetry dedicated to the praise of India. The book, as a whole, echoes the fraternal relations between the Arab and Indian peoples, which are clearly highlighted in the poetic excerpts it contains. These poems reflect, like a clear mirror, the feelings of affection and respect for India and the Indians in the hearts and emotions of Arab poets across various countries. All of them deeply appreciate the strong Arab-Indian relations and heap praise on the friendly Indian people, their cultural achievements, and national symbols.

Sayed Qutub (1906-1966):

In his book “Literary Criticism” Sayed Qutb discussed the personality of the Indian poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore, who is considered a poet, short story writer, and novelist. Professor Habibullah Khan[21] mentioned, in one of his research papers while discussing the contributions of Arabic writers and intellectuals in translating the works of Tagore into Arabic and the extent of their influence by his works. Sayed Qutb talked about the ideal or mythical hero and mentioned some ideal characters, including the character of “Rama” from the Indian epic “Ramayana“, seeing him as representing absolute tolerance and loyalty[22].

Within the emotional values, critic Sayed Qutub discussed the poems of the poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore as an ideal personality for expressing emotional values. He mentioned him alongside prominent writers and critics such as Khayyam and Thomas Hardy. He said, “In the previous chapter, we embarked on three enjoyable journeys into the worlds of Tagore, Khayyam, and Thomas Hardy, noticing the diversity and uniqueness in each world”[23]. He described Tagore’s character as follows:

“With Tagore, we are in a contented, generous, responsive, and affectionate world, in a universe where its edges are holding hands, and its elements are woven with deep, flowing threads, like the melodies of a great symphony”[24].

He then compared him with the mentioned authors (i.e., Khayyam and Hardy) and concluded that Tagore occupies the highest place because he is in constant contact with the great source, and every aspect of his life is connected to what lies beyond the veil, with channels always open between him and the grand essence. He has the ability to always transport us from the transient, partial thoughts to the overarching feeling of our greater connection to life. These are a few features rarely possessed by poets. The critic Sayed Qutub also mentioned some excellent examples of Tagore’s poetry[25]. Thus, Sayed Qutb addressed one of the pillars of Indian culture, represented by the personality of Rabindranath Tagore, placing him above the prominent writers, intellectuals, and poets of his time.



[1]. India and Indians in Arabic Literature, Paper published in the magazine “Thaqafatul Hind”, Vol.22, Issue:4, 2011.

[2]. Abbas Mahmoud Aqqad, A Great Soul – Mahatma Gandhi, (Ruhun Azimun Al-Mahata Ghandhi), Hindawai foundation for Education and Culture, Cairo, 2012, P.7.

[3]. Ibid, P.9.

[4]. Ibid, P.15.

[5]. Ibid, P.15.

[6]. Ibid, P.61.

[7]. This poem contains three pages and 39 stanzas.

[8]. “Mahatma Gandhi’s upbringing and work in South Africa”, from his biography as written by himself and published by one of his English followers, Mr. Andrews. It was translated into Arabic by Ismail Mazhar and printed by Issa Al-Babi Al-Halabi and his partners in Egypt, at the Dar Ihya Al-Kutub Al-Arabiyya publishing house in Egypt, page 6.

[9]. Ibid, p.7.

[10]. Ibid, P.7.

[11]. The book was published for the first time in 1933, the revised edition of the same was published by “Hindawi Foundation” by 2012, which is available free of cost on the website of the foundation as given: (, Visit date: 01/10/2023.

[12]. Visit the official website of the foundation: (

[13]. Ibid.

[14]. Ali Zayour, Indian Philosophies: Hindu, Islamic, and Reformist Sects, Edition 2nd, Al-Undlus Publishing House, Beirut 1983, P.244.

[15]. Ibid, P. 244.

[16]. Ibid, P.244.

[17]. Ahmad Shilbi, The Great Indian Religions, Edition 1st, Egyptian Renaissance Publishing House, Cairo, 2000, P. 197-198. 

[18]. These stanzas are published on the given website: (, Visit date: 02/10/2023.

[19]. Ibid.

[20]. “Tahiyyatu al-Hind” in Arabic.

[21]. He is a professor at Jamia Millia Islamia in the department of Arabic.

[22]. Sayed Qutub,  Literary Criticism; Principles and methodologies, P.15.

[23]. Sayed Qutub,  Literary Criticism; Principles and methodologies, P.29.

[24]. Sayed Qutub,  Literary Criticism; Principles and methodologies, P.27-28.

[25]. Ibid, P.33, 34, 37.